The Marion County Attorney’s Office has been down a prosecutor since March, when Nicole Olson left to accept a position with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office. At the Board of Supervisors’ request, County Attorney Ed Bull and his team have been getting by without someone in Olson’s former role.
Before Olson’s departure, Bull has looked at every case to gauge which ones should go to trial and which ones for which he should try to make a deal.
“I have discretion to say, ‘I think there’s a way we can resolve this case,'” Bull said. “It is an absolute abuse of power to say there are laws I’m not going to enforce.”
Bull was referring to certain prosecutors across the country now, which no longer try to hold drug offenders accountable. According to Bull, 90 percent of crimes committed in Marion County are tied to drugs in some way.
The thought process he goes through when determining if he should press for a trial is what is best for the taxpayer.
“As a taxpayer of Marion County, do you want me to prosecute, go the trial, take 12 people out of their lives, request law enforcement o potentially pay overtime to get a conviction for someone to go to prison and be out in six months, or would you rather me plea it down and have him do three months in jail?” Bull said.
With so many crimes tied to drugs, and the State’s failure to hold convicted felons accountable by keeping them in prison to serve their sentences, the question has been popping up more.
The Marion County Attorney’s Office typically tries eight cases each year. Bull says that for the most part, these are cases in which he was unable to reach any resolution.
Punishments handed down by judges for criminals are typically the same, whether someone has entered a guilty plea or been found guilty by a jury. Bull wonders why he should go to trial if a defendant is willing to plea. But sometimes, there are those cases that are difficult to find any common ground.
A recent trial loss by the office was in the case against Michael Powell, who was charged with terrorism. Powell was accused of posting on Facebook a message that members of a senior high school class would be “martyrs.”
This concerned school officials, but none of the senior class saw the post. Upon further investigation, the perpetrator was found to be in Arizona. He could not be charged with harassment under the circumstances, so with the assistance of law enforcement partners, Powell was charged with terrorism. Iowa’s definition of terrorism includes making a threat to force a policy change. Powell was acquitted.
“(The jury) did not believe he was imminently likely to carry it out,” Bull said. “Our argument was not persuasive that today you can be halfway around the world in 18 hours. We lost, but I’m glad the case was not dismissed. There should be consequences for saying kids will be martyrs.”
It is this kind of case that will get tried – one in which the defendant does not want to take responsibility and the office is not willing to dismiss.
From a law enforcement perspective, it can take a great deal of time, work and effort to build a case against a defendant. Bull and his staff try to stay in contact with police officers and deputies before moving on to a plea deal. He said he believes in open dialogue and strong communication.
“I don’t want to blindside them,” Bull said. Sometimes, this communication includes explaining that, even if one is charged with three crimes, a judge will likely only punish the defendant based upon one crime.
“Is it worth it if the judge will give the exact same punishment?” Bull asked.
Bull has seen a steady decrease in the number of cases his office handles. He believes messages about being tough on crime are starting to work. In some cases, his more aggressive approach to law enforcement is starting to deter crime. One indication of this is the decrease in the average daily population of the Marion County Jail compared to before Bull to today.
He does not take all of the credit, as Bull says there are more officers on the street. Police chiefs and the sheriff have done a great job in allocating resources to solving more crimes and not just taking incident reports.